How Traveling Helped My Eating Disorder Recovery
Abstinence and contingency-planning may be essential for preventing relapse in the early stages of eating disorder recovery. But recovery can evolve over time. Through traveling, I learned to embrace unplanned and unpredictable situations rather than constantly grasping at the illusion of control. This helped me feel less anxious about ambiguity and became an instrumental part of my long-term recovery.
Adapting to New Surroundings
When I decided to quit my job and embark on a year-long adventure through Asia, I was excited and anxious all at once. I wasn’t a stranger to stepping out of my comfort zone, but this was going to be my first lengthy trip abroad since starting my recovery from bulimia five years prior. I knew that my once-in-a-lifetime experience would come with its list of challenges.
In Thailand – where I volunteered with a women’s empowerment organization for several months – local food consisted of fresh vegetables, roots, and herbs. My host was a phenomenal cook and homemade dishes were readily available, which meant that restricting or skipping meals – common relapse triggers for me – were never an option.
Eating was central to social events. Mealtimes were fun, rowdy occasions where friends gathered, sometimes multiple times a day, to share an abundance of food. Northern Thai specialties were generously laid out before me. Colleagues nudged me to “eat up,” joking that it was unacceptable to leave food on your plate in Thailand. According to Thai folklore, throwing away rice would enrage the Rice Goddess, Mae Phosop, a deity responsible for ensuring that everyone has enough food to eat.
Friends took turns bringing delicious snacks and deep-fried savories to the office. My boss drove us to street food stalls between mealtimes to buy sticky rice, spring rolls, or roti (traditional pancake). I enjoyed learning about Northern Thailand’s diverse cuisine, influenced by the culinary traditions of various ethnicities, including Lao, Burmese, Shan, Hmong, and Karen. But I found myself feeling increasingly anxious about how much I was eating.
Identifying an Underlying Problem
Unable to prepare my own meals and in an unfamiliar environment, I began overindulging on rich foods. I convinced a colleague to start jogging with me after work each day. We ran along the Mekong River at sunset. But as deadlines approached and our daily runs came to a halt, a feeling of trepidation crept over me like a cloud.
A structured eating plan had become an instrumental part of my eating disorder recovery, helping me escape the vicious cycle of restrict, binge, and purge. But despite curbing my dysfunctional eating behaviors, it appeared that I was still vulnerable to disordered thinking. Exercise was another way to compensate for eating too much or consuming something “unhealthy.” I’d been telling myself that eating three balanced meals per day and abstaining from certain foods prevented the impulse to overeat, but I realized that I was more afraid of losing control than falling back into unhealthy patterns.
My recovery revolved around regulating when, how, and what I ate. While rigidity might have been helpful in the beginning, I questioned whether this mindset was serving me in the long-run. My intolerance of uncertainty and imperfection was preventing me from fully immersing myself in new experiences and cultures.
Letting Go of the Desire to Control
Over the next few months, I consciously challenged my beliefs around eating: the “good” versus “bad” food dichotomy, the inflexibility around quantity, an abstinence-based approach to food, and my unflinching desire to control. I continued to aim for three balanced meals a day. But, there were times when I couldn’t plan my eating in advance, or it was impossible to find my usual food items in lesser-known parts of the world. Each time I started worrying about whether I had consumed something “bad” or eaten more than I “should have,” I practiced self-compassion and acceptance.
Through traveling and embracing unpredictable experiences, I learned how to trust myself again, feeling confident that I can handle whatever challenges the universe has in store for me. In the early stages of my recovery, abstinence and adherence to a strict plan were essential. But over time, it became essential to start living in the grey area. Each day, I continue to step into the unknown and let life be complicated and full of surprises because that’s part of what makes it so beautiful.
Redif, Z. (2019, August 2). How Traveling Helped My Eating Disorder Recovery, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2019/8/how-traveling-helped-my-eating-disorder-recovery